Detroit Journal: On the Beat with Father Solanus

I like to think of Father Solanus Casey as the Post-it Note priest, since the monument above his tomb on Mt. Elliott in Detroit invariably has a pack of sticky papers on top, so that the faithful can easily attach their prayer requests.

More than 60,000 people will fill Ford Field here on November 18, when the Catholic Church beatifies Father Solanus, the next step to becoming an American saint.

As a longtime reporter, I’ve been amazed at the number of people I have encountered in my job covering the auto and healthcare industries in Detroit who spoke to me about this simple man who was the doorkeeper at St. Bonaventure Church and the highly sought-after confidant of those in trouble or sorrow.

Some of them met him in person; others clutched small scapulars, a sort of religious guardian medal, with a photograph of the famous Detroiter and a tiny relic snipped from his brown robe.

When I worked on a Detroit News series called “The Making of Michigan,” the story of three Michigan families going back five generations, one of the family members I interviewed was Josephine Mazzola, the wife of a Detroit shoemaker.

Peter Mazzola worked days in his tiny shop on the east side repairing shoes and then at night in war production at a converted Detroit auto plant during World War II. The strain of working two jobs and raising a family was too much. He sometimes had trouble working and obsessively washed his hands, trying to get out the shoe dye that stained his fingers. Friends and relatives urged Josephine to take Peter to see Father Solanus.

The Mazzolas went to an evening Mass as St. Bonaventure one night in 1944. It was crowded, with many people crying. Josephine said she was shocked at how tiny Father Solanus looked. She didn’t expect someone that powerful to be that small.

After Mass, the Mazzolas lingered with a few other people and Father Solanus reappeared from the sacristy. He listened to their story and took the shoemaker’s hands in his. He held them for a while, said prayers over them and simply said, “You’ll get better. You’ll be fine.”

Peter improved and Josephine wore a Father Solanus scapular until she was into her 80s.

When I worked on another Detroit News series about Detroit’s ailing hospitals, at a time when several healthcare systems were closing unprofitable facilities, I also ran into lots of people who would hold the Father Solanus medals in their hands while waiting in crowded and dirty emergency rooms.

At the St. Frances Cabrini clinic in Detroit’s Corktown, America’s oldest free clinic, there was a statue of Mother Cabrini, the patron saint of hospital administrators in the lobby. But the patients often prayed to Father Solanus and invoked his aid while waiting for their appointments.

I encountered mother after mother at Children’s Hospital of Detroit, who talked to me about the Detroit priest while their kids were in the chemotherapy clinic or waiting for a heart transplant.

My husband’s family has its own Father Solanus story.

When a family member was struggling with her husband’s infidelity, she went to see the holy man. He wrote something on a piece of paper, folded it up and told her to sew it into the hem of her husband’s coat. She did and, for a time, the notorious womanizer became a good provider and faithful man.

Looking back, it’s clear that Father Solanus is the perfect embodied of a blue-collar saint and somebody Detroiters could identify with.

After all, Father Solanus was rough around the edges, like many of us.

He witnessed a murder while he worked as a prison guard before he entered religious life. He did not look or act very promising and was ordained at a lower “rank” known as a “simplex priest,” meaning he was not good enough to hear confessions or preach doctrinal sermons.

There is a violin carved into his tomb and he played the instrument, but the other monks in the Capuchin Order he belonged to have told interviewers that he was a terrible musician. Father Solanus, who was called “Barney” as a kid, even had a broken engagement.

Despite his shortcomings and disappointments, he preached the gospel of gratitude. “Thank God ahead of time,” he often told the people he counseled. Thank God for Father Solanus and all he has meant to this city.

Photo Credit: Archdiocese of Detroit

 

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